Adapting to online learning in a pinch

Whenever a situation occurs that keeps students from their physical classrooms, online learning gets more attention. In this case, the emergency is COVID-19, and it’s motivating some to examine their online learning strategy, but it may as easily be a natural disaster or even a snow day.

Though more college students are enrolling in online courses than ever before, online learning offerings are still the minority at most institutions and the majority of teachers are unprepared to teach online. This leaves a large swathe of students vulnerable in an emergency.

Every educational institution should have a strategy for academic emergencies that is widely shared widely with faculty, staff, and students. This strategy should include a teaching continuity plan aimed at helping everyone adapt to remote or online learning and teaching if school stays in session campus shuts down.

Now, I’m no stranger to online education and I strongly believe that great online learning requires purposeful, iterative design coupled with training and practice. So can we expect teachers to adapt and facilitate effective learning in a pinch?

Having read dozens of teaching continuity plans from the Canvas LMS community, I’ve synthesized key recommendations that your institution can implement to support teaching continuity. In this series I’ll share ideas that your institution can adopt before, during, and after an emergency.

Teaching continuity: Before

“When danger comes there will not be time for such work as this…” – Aesop, The Wild Boar and The Fox

Ideally every institution would be prepared for teaching continuity before an incident occurs. Their plan would be widely shared and teams would be ready to execute. But the following recommendations can be helpful even if your institution is already in the midst of a switch to remote teaching:

Create an online environment for every teacher, every course

Having teachers consistently use their LMS as the center of remote teaching not only provides them with tools they need to keep teaching, but also can simplify the student experience and streamline support.

Most institutions that use Canvas for their LMS have integrated it with their student information system (SIS) and authentication systems. This can ensure that every teacher has an online course environment and that every student can access that environment using their standard user ID and password.

Unfortunately, some institutions do not automate LMS course creation, requiring faculty to “request a course shell.” This creates another layer of work for the faculty in an emergency – and additional help desk load for the institution. The better path is to automate the creation of online course environments every semester, even if some teachers aren’t ready to use them.

In a crisis, institutions may want to consider auto-publishing course environments when they are created so that students can take advantage of the LMS to share files, form groups, or discuss, even if the teacher’s not ready to jump in.

Help service providers anticipate your needs

A crisis like the novel coronavirus is, by definition, unpredictable. And today’s educators rely on multiple systems from different vendors with different capabilities to support teaching and learning, from video conferencing to online proctoring. Many of these systems will struggle with a massive increase in load or unexpected usage spikes. Some of them will even fall down. But most of them can prepare ahead of time – if they know the traffic is coming.

Your IT team can help those service providers by informing them ASAP when your institution decides to switch to remote teaching and how many active users you expect. Each service provider should be asked to assess capacity and scale up and even over-provision as needed. Learn how they can proactively monitor each service and report slowdowns or incidents. Be sure to understand how the service provider will inform you if something goes wrong, and know what to expect if disaster recovery is necessary.

Finally, have IT evaluate possible points of failure in your own teaching and learning ecosystem. For example, if users typically access the LMS via a campus portal, determine if there is a Plan B or alternate entries for students if one service fails.

Prepare to scale and deploy teaching support staff

When you switch to remote teaching, the increase in technology usage will likely be mirrored by an increase in faculty training and support needs.

So how do you prepare for this? Probably with the teaching support staff you already have – trainers, instructional designers, and technologists. These roles tend to have some overlap in skills and abilities, so rally them together in an emergency. Knowing who these expert staff members are is the first step in enlisting their help. They may be able to put current projects on hold in order to train or support faculty. They may also be able to find or create useful resources like job aids and checklists.

If you expect faculty demand to outpace your staff’s capacity, consider hiring temporary student employees through one-time budgeting, work study, or internships. Your existing support staff will be critical in on-boarding and training new student employees, so let them know that this is one step back for two steps forward.

Finally, every department likely has some faculty who are experienced online teachers and may even have online versions of face-to-face courses. These faculty may be willing and able to help their colleagues, but we should respect the fact that, as well-prepared as they may be, they’re also under additional pressure to adapt their own courses.

Like the boar who sharpens his tusks against the tree despite not being in danger, educational institutions should ideally prepare for teaching continuity before a crisis occurs, but this is not always possible.

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